Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Do you remember the cartoon Dilbert? I remember as a kid, taking my father’s newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal, and digging through to the Green Sheet—that was the cosmics section which they printed on green paper. It was easy to find, it was the only thing during the week that wasn’t black and white. And, being the early 90’s, one of the cartoons featured was Dilbert, which in case you’re not familiar, Wikipedia describes it as being “known for its satirical office humor about a white-collar, micromanaged office featuring [the] engineer Dilbert as the title character.” 

One cartoon, a single image with a punchline, features Dilbert sitting next to his dog, Dogbert, who says to him, “I believe in karma. That means I can do bad things to people all day long and I assume they deserve it.”

Do you believe in Karma? Not so you can justify doing bad things to people, but do you believe in karma?

Karma is, after all, the idea that you get what you deserve. You reap what you sow. That if you do what is good, good things will happen to you in return. But if you do bad, bad things will happen to you in return. You get what you deserve. 

And at some level, I think we all feel this way. We may not have a developed, rational system of belief around it, but we believe it all the same. That we believe that we deserve good things in life because we are good people. That God, or the universe, or whatever, owes it to us to bring good into our lives because we are good people. And when bad things happen to us, something went wrong, because we don’t deserve it. I’m a good, kind, loving person, who wouldn’t hurt a fly. I don’t deserve cancer. I don’t deserve for my car to be totalled in an accident. I don’t deserve to lose my job in this round of layoffs.

Every time you feel this way, or say these things, you demonstrate just how much you believe in karma. That you reap what you sow. 

Irish Theologian Paul Hewson stated it well, when in an interview he said, “at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. What you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one.  Its’ clear to me,” he said, “that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.  I’m absolutely sure of it.

“And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘As you reap, so will you sow’ stuff.  Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts the consequences of your actions.”

The idea that you reap what you sow is a logical system, especially if we believe that God is just and fair. But our God doesn’t always work that way, as taught by Jesus to his disciples. You don’t always get what you sow. At least, that’s not all that there is. The Galileans PIlate killed, they didn’t die because they were worse sinners than others. The 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, they didn’t die because they were worse sinners than others. Their deaths had nothing to do with what kind of people they were. But we all need to repent, and to open ourselves to the grace of God. To open ourselves to forgiveness and life and peace. 

Because grace “upend[s] all that ‘as you reap, so you sow’ stuff.” Because Jesus comes to us, to die, be buried, and rise again, overcoming the power of sin and death, bringing the love and grace of God to all of humanity. That we, undeserving as we are because of the ways that we all have done evil in our loves, find forgiveness and life and peace through Jesus Christ. 

So is our faith that of grace or karma?

If we move on to examining the parable of the fig tree, the answer is… both? The tree bears no fruit, so the owner wants to cut it down, but the gardener wants more time to nourish and nurture it, to see if it will bear fruit before cutting it down. Sounds a lot like karma.

But the Gospel message at its core is grace. That in Christ, God took the initiative to reconcile us to God. It’s not because of who we were, that we were anything special that God would do this for us, but solely because God loves us that God came to our aid. God took the initiative. Like the gardener, who agrees that the tree that doesn’t bear fruit should be cut down, but also that it might just need a little more time, and a little more care, and some nurturing to bring it around. 

Because “love interrupts the consequences of your actions.”

I can’t say this definitely, that we have the market on this as Christians, but there is one thing about our faith that is especially distinctive among world religions: that God initiates our reconciliation. That God does all the work. That God didn’t wait for us to make the first move, but sent Jesus to do the work of repairing the broken relationship between humanity and the divine. That salvation is by grace, through faith, and this is not your own doing, but it is the gift of God, not the result of our efforts. God took the first step. 

This same God was revealed at the burning bush to a Moses who wasn’t looking for God; and brought the people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to a land flowing with milk and honey, even though they defied God and put God to the test all the way from Egypt, through the desert, and to the Jordan River at the edge of the promised land. 

And that’s a lesson which we can all learn from. That if our God takes the first step to make things right in the world, we should be a people who do the same. Not like Dogbert, who justifies doing bad things toward people because he believes they deserve it, but who do good to all people, especially those who don’t deserve it. 

So who are the people in your life with whom you need to take the first step? With whom you need need to show kindness and love as a first step? There’s a good chance, that if you’ve been thinking, “Well I know who needs to take that first step to me,” you’ve already identified that person. Good! You’ve got that out of the way! But even if no one comes to mind, know this: everyone could benefit from more love and kindness in their lives.

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